YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – An investigation of spending practices under Youngstown City School District Superintendent Justin Jennings, who tendered his resignation June 5, underscores the value of local, boots-on-the-ground investigative journalism.
Jennings’ departure, effective June 30, comes about four years after he was named the school district’s CEO under House Bill 70, which took control away from a district superintendent and elected school board. His resignation follows a series of investigative reports by WFMJ that focused on the expenditure of federal pandemic recovery dollars that Jennings solely authorized as CEO.
The district had received $77 million in federal funds to address education issues related to the pandemic. WFMJ launched an investigation last August into how the school district’s allocation was spent after receiving a call to its newsroom. The investigation found that approximately $9 million in pandemic relief was spent on projects that were never started let alone completed or was otherwise wasted.
That spending included Jennings’ plan to provide communitywide wireless internet access, an abandoned effort that left unused – and still gathering dust – more than $5 million in federally funded equipment. Another $3.6 million paid for COVID-19 tests kits. Many had to be discarded because they had expired – at a time when the Ohio Department of Health was offering test kits for free.
WFMJ’s investigation took several months of working with sources, corroborating documents and “classic gumshoe journalism,” says news director Mona Alexander. The team included managing editor Justin Mitchell, digital manager Robert McFerren, reporter Madison Tromler, assistant news director Sheila Miller, and Alexander.
That’s a significant commitment of manpower given competing demands on the resources of the locally owned TV station. “We had the support of the management and the ownership. That gives us the flexibility and the encouragement to do this kind of reporting. And that’s critical,” Alexander says.
In a statement, district board president Tiffany Patterson described Jennings’ reason for stepping down as “private. … During his four-plus years, he consistently demonstrated his unwavering dedication to the district while building a foundation and framework for continuous improvement. Out of his steady leadership came a plan of recovery and infrastructure enhancement,” she said.
Patterson’s statement failed to address the spending questions raised by WFMJ. Its investigation validated the role that local journalism must play in holding local leaders accountable. And by not directly responding to the issue, the school board president – and Jennings – demonstrated dereliction of duty.
“This kind of journalism has to be encouraged and allowed to continue,” Alexander says.
It also deserves to be commended.
And the public deserves answers.